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Wiltshire

Do you want to appear in the national Press, Radio or TV?

Do you want to appear in the national press? Do you want to be interviewed on national radio? Do you want to be featured in a high quality national magazine?  Thomas & Fiona

If the answer to any of these questions is yes – please read on.

I attended an event in London last week called Meet The Journalists – organised by Dan Martin of Enterprise Nation. You may well ask ‘why would a journalist want to meet other journalists?’ – in my case it was to make new contacts face to face but also to ensure my thinking about the national media and the advice I share with my clients is actually up-to-date and accurate. It was.

The event was attended by many small business people and PR people and it was sold out. What interested me was the behaviour of some of those who attended. First of all, when invited to ask questions – several people launched into a long pitch about their business. Often very desperately as if they had to speak at 100mph and share their long story in 30 seconds flat. This demonstrated to me they saw this as an opportunity to pitch, not to ask. Rather like the hard sale at a networking event and probably likely to yield the same result. 

The next thing which interested me was the way in which a few small business owners wanted to whine and bleat at the journalists about how hard their lives are, how they try to get publicity but are ignored and how they don’t have time to make the effort to engage these journalists. There was a sense from some in the audience the journalists had some kind of ‘duty’ to tell their story. Again, this is a familiar ditty which I hear week in and week out. For me, it’s also a sign of a business which probably won’t last. It’s no good telling a journalist you haven’t got time – they aren’t interested. Listening and acting efficiently on the tips they share is one of the best ways to spend marketing time surely. Or hire someone to do it for you. Simple. 

A third thing which really got my attention was the way in which a national journalist will decide if your business is worth more than a cursory glance. I know how the news agenda works – when in television day in an day out, a story was often not deemed newsworthy until it had appeared in a newspaper somewhere first. Personally I could never understand that – a good story is a good story. However it often worked that way.

Now, the journalists clearly have  a pattern of research and – surprise, surprise – it’s very similar to anyone’s pattern of research.

In a national arena where they write about the biggest, the best, the richest, the worst, the least – they will not write about the mediocre. If a national journalist is interested at all in you, they will look you or your business up on the internet first. If your website is done by your cousin’s child and cost you 50p you are out straightaway. If there are no news stories already there about you to reinforce your credibility – you are at a huge disadvantage. If national or international profile is your goal – you have to be present in a way that can be found easily and quickly.

Finally, some national journalists positively want to hear from the little guy or the little gal but not every day and not on stories which are not of national interest. If you are hiring your first employee – that’s not going to cut it. If you are hiring that expert from Flog It!, that might get their attention. However, if they are writing about apprenticeships and you have hired your first apprentice – well, that’s a toe in straightaway. So my final piece of advice is this – keep on top of the news agenda every  day and, if it fits you or your business, become part of the story by proactively letting them know that you are around – and you are available. 

What did you do when your friend died of breast cancer?

On February 13 this year my friend Ainslie died of breast cancer after fighting the dreaded disease for 12 years. I knew Ainslie was going to die, at the time of her death she had cancer in her brain, was wheelchair bound and her body was less and less able to function. Given that I knew she was going to leave, I was always so sure I’d know when the time came. However I did not.

It was a full 24 hours later – while away with my family on a weekend break  – when I got the text from her husband Phil to tell me she’d gone.  I went into the state of shock which comes when someone who is part of your life is taken, a parting even worse if that someone is young, in this case just 47. My son told me he’d never heard me cry like that. 

Ainslie Duffell

Ainslie, who fought breast cancer for 12 years

I asked him what he meant. After all, I’m so soft I’ll cry at a tv advertisement which pulls on the heart strings. He’s seen me cry regularly, hundreds of times. He just said ‘it wasn’t like that’. I think he meant I was howling – making that kind of sound you make when you are almost separate from yourself wondering why on earth you are emitting such a strange, animal noise. 

When home, i visited Phil and Alex to see them following Ainslie’s passing. It’s one of those moments you dread but know you have to face and I did it with one of my children who felt she wanted to be there. It was such a shock to walk into the house and see Ainslie looking at me from the sofa – my heart flipped. Perhaps there’d been a mistake – but how could there be? It was actually Ainslie’s sister, Lindsay, who looks like her, or who looks like her before cancer took over Ainslie’s body and tried – but did not succeed  – to rob her of her essential self. 

What do you do when your friend dies from cancer? When you could do absolutely nothing to help her when she was here apart from being there? You can – donate money to her funeral fund, you can support her family in the days following her death, offer to do some practical things like cook meals, do shopping, clean the house. However, having suffered loss myself before – that’s not where the best and most positive route lies. Do those things. Do them as a matter of course, but don’t let that be it. The best route for me lies in letting everyone know this person mattered  weeks, months or years down the line. For everyone achieving that may look different. 

I lost my dad when he was 58 and I remember him daily by talking about him and ensuring my children know what he looked like, the funny things he said and did. What he did or didn’t like. How he influenced me for good and ill. When I lost my brother in law at just 49, it was about honouring his children, seeing him in them, trying to support my sister through the worst times of her life – and trying to keep on doing it even when it’s hard to do so. That’s family. But what about a close friend?

When I went to Ainslie’s house to see Phil and their son Alex, following her death. Alex and Phil told me they had a plan. In her journal, Ainslie had said how sad she was that she was unable to see Alex achieve his first century at cricket. Alex is a rising young star on the Wiltshire cricket scene and the sport is his passion – as it is Phil’s who is a sports journalist and qualified cricket coach. Why was Ainslie unable to see her son play on that day? As a wheelchair user, the cricket club where Alex plays regularly has very poor wheelchair access and nowhere for a disabled or very ill person to view a match safely or in any degree of comfort. Although very proud of her son, Ainslie’s wish to see him play could not be fulfilled. Her journal revealed the true extent of her sadness.

Now I know nothing about cricket save it can involve teams dressed in white carrying bats, using very hard red balls and the word ‘runs’ comes into it. It’s not a sport I’ve ever been interested in and my only abiding memory of it is the novelist DH Lawrence refers to the ‘chocking’ of the cricket ball hitting the bat in one of his novels. I’ve always liked the word ‘chock’. When Phil & Alex asked if I would support them in a five year project to rebuild the cricket pavilion at the Purton Cricket Club in Wiltshire so that no other wheelchair user would be denied access – I said yes. 

As I said before, I could do nothing to help Ainslie while she was alive battling this horrible, disgusting disease – but this is something I can do. I can do my little bit to support Phil & Alex as they attempt to create a legacy in Ainslie’s name at a cricket club which will be 200 years old in 2020. I’m proud to have been asked and I’m proud to do my bit. 

Could you do your bit by sharing this blog post? It will be one of many charting this journey over the next few years and highlighting events to raise money. At this early stage, just over £5,000 has been raised to get the project off the ground. It will be a long journey ahead with obstacles, hurdles and great moments. But it will never be anything like the journey which went before….so this is what I’m doing for my friend Ainslie….

I Think Excellent Customer Service Is More Important Than Ever – Do You Agree?

Good customer service is very important to me – is it important to you? In fact during 2014, I made a point of praising anyone who gave me, or my family, excellent service and being very clear when service was not up to scratch.

One mantra I’ve heard repeated several times is ‘why is this important when you can buy so much online now?’ – to me, there is no difference between excellent customer service on or offline. If it wasn’t important, why would services like Amazon and Ebay ask for reviews? And do you ever read the reviews? I do – and does it influence a buying decision? It certainly does for me.

cafe in Ireland with words 'come on in, the kettle's on the boil'

Excellent Customer Service

 

In the real world, shopping has to be more and more like an experience – and a good experience at that – why? because it’s so much easier, more convenient and often cheaper to buy online. Therefore, real world shopping must offer something extra. There must be some added value which engages the emotion. These are absolute musts for 2015.

If anyone is in doubt – look at the success in my home town of Swindon of the Designer Outlet Village, where experience is at the heart of shopping. People come from all over the country to shop there – they anticipate a bargain and they also anticipate an experience. This flagship centre for McArthur Glen – the company which runs the site – is a testament to good service. The mailing list for this one outlet centre alone is huge – a list many of us would be thrilled to manage.

So what is bad customer service? For me, it’s any person within any business who makes me FEEL slighted, stupid, silly, of little value – EVEN IF I’M IN THE WRONG. Remember the old adage ‘the customer is always right’ – there’s sense in that. No one can argue with how a customer feels, even if that customer is being unreasonable. Here are a few things I personally class as ‘bad’ service:

*Being ignored when I ask a direct question – this once happened to me in an Apple store where the member of staff, started talking to another customer during a conversation with me – I left and  made no purchase.

* Being continually hassled by staff when it’s clear I’m browsing and taking in the shop and what it has to offer. Once is enough.

* Being made to feel stupid when you can’t work out the intricacies of the ‘bill’ – this happened to me recently at Dominos Express in Swindon where the manager insisted I was unintelligent – his view changed however when I told him I was a journalist (something I should not have to do to be treated well). I will never enter that shop again. Not because the pizzas aren’t good – but I will be reminded of how I was made to feel.

*Being pushed aside by a telephone call – if I’m being served and the staff member receives a telephone call, I expect to come first – not be dismissed in favour of a telephone. This will guarantee I will leave without making a purchase.

*Being told ‘we can’t do that because the system won’t accept it’ – this has happened to me several times, when you want to amend a standard order, especially in food outlets. Where you cannot make a small change because a computer system is set up to offer no options. Again, a great reason for me to leave.

However it’s no good being continually negative. I now take the time to thank people for good service, fill in surveys where requested and give feedback. Nothing will change if you don’t engage. I have no idea what happens to that feedback, i just know it’s worth doing. Some excellent customer service highlights for me this year:

* the patience of a store manager when one of my children was horribly embarrassed about having a bra fitting and was tearful on entering the shop.

* the excellence of an American company which supplied me with a faulty product and replaced it within 48 hours, from America, at no extra cost and did not insist on the faulty item being returned.

* the responsive attitude of a Mini Service member of staff in Swindon who listened when I explained a complaint, put it right immediately and then sought me a better deal to make me feel better – hence work on my car which I thought would be £200 at least was actually £25. Now how will I feel on entering those premises again?

So it’s all about excellent customer service – but the onus is also on me as a consumer to give feedback, to say thank you and to praise as much as possible those who go the extra mile.

I’d be interested in your experiences too….

Are you a South West entrepreneur thinking ‘why bother with Twitter’?

Today I was asked to write a blog post about Twitter – so I’m happy to oblige.

Why? Well, as a media consultant and journalist I often hear comments like ‘why bother with Twitter?’ or ‘I’m on Twitter but I’ve no idea what to do’.

These phrases are familiar because a few years ago that’s exactly what I thought. When I became self-employed in 2009, I had a Twitter account which sat there doing absolutely nothing. I would occasionally send out a tweet but couldn’t really see how much good it would do for me in business.

However after about 18 months, for some reason, I really thought about it compared with other social media platforms. I realised it’s potentially a great way to connect with people – and here’s the key thing – very quickly with minimum effort. Also as a journalist, I’m often looking for good stories so this could be an effective way to achieve another good outcome. So I set myself a challenge – to give Twitter a year and try to systematically build my audience to work for me more effectively.

I put out of my mind the fact that Twitter is global, has billions of accounts, loads of spam accounts and can be risky in terms of trolling etc. I trusted my common sense to deal with these issues as they arose (and they have from time to time and I’ve dealt with them as needed). I decided to use Twitter according to my agenda, my audience and my desired business reach. Therefore good connections for me are in the south west and London, they are people rather than organisations and one key thing – I share, I share a lot, I share as much as I tweet and I share things which interest me or which I think are generally interesting. If you do this, I guarantee at some point someone will say to you ‘I really enjoy your Twitter feed you share some good stuff’ or ‘Oh yes, I saw you talking about that on Twitter’.  You are creating your own news service.

Fiona 2013 - 3

Very quickly, having made that decision to take Twitter seriously, it became addictive and I got engaged in various conversations. I then decided to think about the best times to tweet – and you will find me talking most in the evenings and the mornings.

However the pivotal moment came when I saw a tweet asking for someone who could write a script and who had experience in the education sector. I answered as I met those criteria with a phrase ‘that’s me’. That tweet led to another tweet, which led to an email which led to a telephone conversation which led to a paid-for trip to London for a meeting which then led to a project which paid me £3,000. This was a short-term piece of work which I could relate directly back to a single tweet with a company which would never have found me – or vice versa – if it wasn’t for this amazing social platform.

That sold me on Twitter and I’ve had many great outcomes since. I’ve been offered work by people who’ve engaged with me, made the effort to research me online and then offered me work. I’ve been able to place publicity for clients and myself, and I’ve raised my profile in my own community in the south west. I will often go into a room full of business people – many of whom I’ve never met – and  people start talking to me as if they know me. Talk about the best ice-breaker.

Another outcome is that those who are beginners now pay me to get them started on Twitter – a totally unexpected outcome. So I’ve actually put my ad hoc strategy into something more strategic and started to apply it across Facebook and, more recently Pinterest. I don’t claim to be an expert, I just understand the concept of social conversation over the internet and how to control some of that conversation. I’m still discovering and I often go to workshops by others to increase my own personal knowledge.

My top tips are:

Really be clear as to what is a good outcome on Twitter for you. That way you can track success.

When you make a clear connection – take the conversation from the virtual world to the real world.

Share, share, share.

And finally please follow me @mum3fi

 

Rolf Harris, sexual abuse and the world of television and the media

As we know – this week, entertainer Rolf Harris was sent to prison for abusing children – using his celebrity status as a cloak for his disgusting activities. His past has now caught up with him, he’s paying the price and so will his family. Justice perhaps for those he abused.

He’s one of a line of people, often most famous in the 70s and 80s,  who have been accused – and some subsequently convicted – of allegedly having one public persona and another private persona which is infinitely darker, sexually motivated and criminal.

Within hours, more women, many over the age of consent, starting talking about Harris’s  inappropriate behaviour towards them. Then there also came the voice of those who think all of this is nonsense, a snowball out of control.

I have some sympathy with this I suppose because in those decades, some behaviour was more acceptable than it would be now. When I started out in the 1980s, I lost count of the amount of times I had my bottom pinched or slapped, or talked to someone who kept their eyes aligned with my boobs or who, on one occasion, actually told me his wife didn’t understand him. I could handle all of this  – more than handle it in fact. Several times, I pinched a man’s bottom in return, told someone my face was up here and, with the ‘wife doesn’t understand me’ line, I laughed in the face of the CEO of a large company who said that to me. Positions of  ‘power’ don’t impress me.

However, there were darker moments. Times when I felt the undertone was completely ‘other’ and the threat was something more. There’s a difference between banter and feeling compromised. I remember once visiting the home of a successful businessman who suddenly, quietly and firmly sexually propositioned me in front of his wife – I ran out and drove off at a rate of knots. I also remember one man, then in his 50s, and someone I often saw in the course of  my job, who would keep coming up behind me and gently stroking the back of my neck. It was very invasive.

Therefore, if you know this, you might understand why I got caught up in an online spat with someone who was using phrases like ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ suggesting that somehow women are ‘cashing in’ on Harris’s  conviction. There seemed to be a suggestion that these women were out for money. Or were unworthy of being believed, or were somehow complicit because they didn’t do anything about it at the time.  However, I would challenge any one to do something different to those victims, in the same circumstances.

Are you being abused?

Are you being abused?

Anyone who is a journalist would know that the majority of people who suffer abuse – both men and women – don’t tell anyone at all for very long periods of time. Sometimes for ever.

They will often feel they are somehow at fault, that something they did or said, did make them complicit in the act of abuse. There are refuges nationwide full of people who’ve put up with abuse for very long periods of time. 

 

This online ‘banter’ made me very angry – because I know what Rolf Harris was like and I’ve known for years.

 

Why didn’t you say something I hear you all cry? It’s very simple. I’ve never met him, he did nothing to me.

However, he did do something a good friend of mine – she told me – and I believed her. Why didn’t she report it? Well, that’s a matter for her – but I can probably hazard a guess. She probably thought it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Why? 

Remember the man who stroked my neck that I mentioned earlier? I did confront him and told him not to touch me again after he’d done it several times. I also did report it to my boss – a lovely man but one who appeared out of his depth and probably felt it was too minor a thing to escalate. Maybe he was right. I’d not been groped intimately. It was just the feel of that man touching me was all wrong, that’s very hard to convey in a telephone call – to your boss.  To this day, I don’t know if he was told by anyone other than me that he was out of order.

However, I was a young journalist, just starting out. I’d heard all of the stories about the ‘casting couch’ though, frankly I’ve only ever met one person in my career who I thought used her womanhood to achieve her goals. I wanted a successful career and I didn’t want to get caught up in a scandal or a case which could become something really nasty. Life in the media as a working class woman was hard enough.

Imagine that man being a celebrity like Rolf Harris? Who would believe me at that time? And even if they did, what would have happened? To me? Would it have possibly damaged my career? Anyone could have accused me of inviting the attentions of a famous man. Who would have wanted to employ me as the person who’d accused Harris? Would I inadvertently become damaged goods myself?

Now, more than 20 years on,  it would be different if someone acted inappropriately towards me.

Of course I don’t look the same, I’m older, I don’t have the slim figure I had then.

However, I have the same drive, the same passion for my chosen path – but I also have experience. My experience has shown me that if someone makes me feel threatened – I should listen to that instinct and act on it.

If someone acts inappropriately towards me – is he going to do it to someone else? Has he done it to anyone before me? Experience has taught me that it’s highly likely. For that reason, today, I’d make much noise.

And to those women who found the courage to speak out – you might inspire others who have kept such abuse a secret – thus throwing the spotlight on offenders who’ve been able to hide their behaviour for a life time.

 

Director of the Graham Norton show talks about his life as a carer – part two

Steve & Robert

Enjoying a meal together

This is part two of a story which I started telling during national Carers’ Week last week – it’s very easy to have a stereotypical view of what a carer looks like. However, in my experience, no one chooses such a role. Life simply demands it – and it’s not easy and support can be sadly lacking. Please feel free to comment and share Steve & Robert’s story….

I met both Steve and Robert where we spent an afternoon discussing their lives together in the garden of their very quintessential English home in Wiltshire. I think, I should clarify, given the context of this article. I met Steve for a couple of hours before Robert joined us. 

When he did I was struck by two things immediately – how young he is at 44 years old, and how ill he looks. His movements were so deliberate and very slow as if every step took an effort of will.  I felt his taking the time and trouble to meet and talk to me was important however bad a day he was experiencing.

The couple have been together since 1999, and they were one of the first gay couples in Wiltshire to enter into a civil partnership on December 22 2005. Professionally Robert is a costume designer and the couple had met when he was working on a children’s television programme.

Steve said: “He was, and is,  a very good-looking guy. He had such a zest for life, he was hugely compassionate and generous. Often in the media industry you work alongside people who are very self-obsessed and quite shallow but I knew very quickly that Robert was different. He’s made me become a better person myself. He has a strong spiritual belief, loves nature and the countryside – while I was a complete townie,” Steve, 52, said.

Life was good. A couple in love, with a great social life, spending much time in London, both earning a healthy living and then moving to the countryside to a dream home close to one of Robert’s favourite places in the world  – Avebury.

Things changed when, about seven years ago, Robert caught a summer ‘flu’ but just didn’t seem to be able to get rid of it. Numerous visits to the GP led to a diagnosis of a virus. It was several months until a different diagnosis was made.

ME/CFS is a poorly understood condition and because there is no definitive medical test, some people still do not believe it actually exists.

The Countess of Mar, in a debate in the House of Lords in October 2011 stated: “ME has been classified as a neurological condition since at least 1968… however, for all these years,  sufferers from this awful debilitating illness have been ignored, derided and mistreated… It seems that no matter how often ministers and senior officials confirm their acceptance of the seriousness of this condition, nothing will change until the culture both within and outside the NHS changes.”

ME/CFS is a debilitating neurological condition that affects at least four in 1,000 people; women, men and children of all ages and backgrounds. It causes persistent, profound fatigue that is not cured by sleep; muscle pain that worsens after any physical activity and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. It can be mild to severe, and for many people it lasts for years. It can sometimes get better and it can often recur. There is no known cause, treatment or cure. It’s more common in women than men.

Steve said: “I’ve become aware of the government gradually dismantling the safety net which we’ve had in place since the end of World War II. If you fall into difficulty, you are now very much on your own. 

“It’s an enormous shock when the wheels come off, and you realise there is virtually no help available.  We are an extremely rich country – more billionaires live in London than any other capital city in the world.

“According to the Sunday Times Rich List the wealth of the richest has doubled in the past five years (15% rise in the past year alone).

“Yet we are sitting passively watching the dismantlement of the welfare state – something we could afford during the post-war austerity years, but something we are told is too expensive now. I worry for others who might find themselves in similar or worse positions due to no fault of their own, just the misfortune to be ill.”

“For people who are really sick and need care there is now the extra suffering the govt policies / Atos have brought on the long term sick, and cuts in services. If we are struggling and finding it hard my heart goes out to people in more difficult circumstances and for people struggling on their own with no one to care for them. I can’t imagine how they cope.”

Steve has struggled with the fact that there appears to be no practical support for someone in his situation, little access to any kind of respite and, having exhausted their savings, little, if any, financial support.

In order for Steve to work at all, he has to rely on the generosity of friends to come in to spend time with, and care for, Robert when he goes to work. It also means planning has also entered Steve’s life in a big way.

“Carers Support Wiltshire has been good at offering an ear. It seems that there are plenty of places where one can get some emotional help or telephone counselling but to be honest it’s the practical help and assistance that would be more useful.

“I often have a problem that in order to leave the house and go to work I’d like to be able to request physical help from someone who could come and spend an hour or so supporting Robert while I’m away and ensuring he has food at meal times as he is often unable to prepare this for himself.

“But this kind of practical help isn’t available and certainly not at an affordable price. Being a carer has greatly reduced my ability to earn and help is not available at all to those who rely on sickness benefits. To get this you really have to turn to private care agencies where you are likely to get a different person on each occasion which is likely to be more distressing for the person needing the care.

“We already see how appalling this kind of help is for older vulnerable people requiring care in the home – a rushed 15 minute visit simply isn’t good enough.

“But these things cost money and it seems we as a nation are not prepared to fund it. I have a stressful situation coming up in August as I have been offered a job I would like to do but I will have to spend a couple of days away from home in Edinburgh. This will be very stressful for Robert not having me around to give the support he needs. It would be great if there were some official support I could rely on – even pay to contribute towards.

“Mornings are not good for Robert, he gets very disturbed sleep is an integral part of his illness and often he won’t be up until at least 10.30am.

“It’s very important to his health us that he eats well as his body is unable to function at all without adequate and good quality nutrition. So we don’t have any processed foods at all. So I have to prepare breakfast and then I have to plan meals and cook ready for the day – especially if I need to leave to go work.

“I do have to arrange for someone to come around and spend time with Robert and ensure there’s some food which can just be popped in the oven.

“This means I have to work from home a lot but sometimes that’s just not possible. When you are directing a programme like the Graham Norton Show you have to be in the tv studio on set and on time because that is how our show is made.

“This is the job that I love and I obviously need to work to earn a living to support us both. But sometimes it makes me feel very bad, really awful when Robert is so ill and just doesn’t want to be left on his own.

“But the world of telly is demanding – people are sympathetic to a point but you fast realise when you are self employed people just want you to get on with your job without making a fuss.”

Gone are the days when Steve can stay behind after work for a drink with the rest of his work colleagues. He feels compelled to get home as quickly as possible if Robert has been alone for many hours.

“I have no social life outside of my life with Robert. This means I feel a bit estranged from my colleagues and after a while, socially, you just get forgotten.”

None of what Steve has said is news to Robert. He’s well aware of the impact his condition has had on his partner.

“I know if I’d been on my own I would have gone under,” Robert said. “If I look back at myself in the 1980s and 1990s, I was a media worker leading an exciting and fulfilling life. Now I’m a shadow of my former self. Steve is my support and my rock and like him, I do often feel that there is too little compassion out there.

“We need to have more compassion for people. I’m a very social person, I loved my job and my life and I didn’t want to lose it. I feel guilty that I’m ill so much of the time and guilty that Steve is in this with me.”

Robert has found some solace in writing both journals and books and in his art. He hopes that one day he might be able to publish these or find an outlet for some of his work.

Robert said: “The support needed for people with these conditions is practically non-existent. As there is no effective treatment you’re essentially left on your own. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture are very effective in relieving pain for example,  but they are a hugely unaffordable expense for most people.

“Travel discount passes or parking privileges would be hugely helpful due to the extremely restricted mobility, but regulations make it nearly impossible to qualify for one.

“Isolation is a particular problem for many disabled people with restricted mobility and lack of help with this means that you are essentially left on your own to cope with very little support. It certainly makes you one of life’s survivors.

“I am speaking mainly about the condition I have – CFS. It’s a condition with an invisible disability. If the disability is not immediately apparent, then it is often side-lined and misunderstood.

“It seems to me and many others the current government are targeting the most vulnerable and that’s is a shocking insight into where we find ourselves in modern Britain.”

Steve said: “I have to say when I look at the values of modern Britain I am ashamed. Hate crimes against disabled people are at their highest levels since records began, with an increase in 50% between 2009 and 2011,. These figures correlate strongly with the “welfare reforms” brought in by the government. What the general public are unaware of, is that 6.5 million provide unpaid care to family, friends and neighbours  suffering from long-term physical or mental ill health, disability or old age, saving the state £119 billion a year. There is also an adverse effect on the economy as a whole through losing skilled workers who find the conflicting demands of both caring and working impossible. More practical support for carers would enable more carers to work. 

I understand that public money is tight and that there needs to be some form of means-testing for benefits, but providing services should be an equitable asset for the population as a whole. The threshold for getting help is now so low, you have to be virtually destitute before you are entitled to very small amounts.”  

Factoids:  

Every day 6,000 people will take on a caring role in the UK. It’s believed there are about 6.5m people offering unpaid care to a family member or friend. 

Carers help with personal things such as getting someone washed and dressed, turning them in their sleep, helping them move about or administering their medication. They also help, or take on complete responsibility for tasks like shopping, laundry, cleaning, cooking, filling in forms or managing money.

Director of The Graham Norton Show talks about his ‘other job’ – as a carer

Does anyone care about my new job –  as a carer? 

Robert (front) and Steve before chronic fatigue syndrome struck.

Robert (front) and Steve before chronic fatigue syndrome struck.

What do you think when someone tells you they’re a ‘carer’? 

Do you think ‘well you’re retired, you’ve got grey hair, and such a thing often happens at that time of life” (in other words ‘what do you expect?’) or ‘oh no, now I’m going to have to listen with sympathy to someone with a sob story and I haven’t got the time or the interest.’?

Then, when someone who is a carer actually starts talking about the reality of their daily life, do your eyes glaze over and you drift away, immediately giving out the message that it’s just too much information? You didn’t really want to hear all of that stuff?

That’s what happened recently to renowned television director Steve Smith, who lives near Marlborough, Wiltshire. He was attending a big social red carpet event in London recently when someone he’d not seen for years asked him about his life.

“Many people know that Robert and I have been together for a long time and they asked after us. They didn’t know that Robert has an illness and that our lives had changed beyond recognition.

“Very quickly I realized they didn’t actually want to know. As I talked, their eyes glazed over and suddenly you can feel very alone in a crowded room. Your story just doesn’t fit anymore.”

Steve and Robert have made the decision to speak out about their situation to raise awareness around the impact of being a carer for national Carers Week this week.

“We don’t fit any mould or stereotype around caring. We’re a couple who are trying to care for and support each other through an ongoing situation which has changed our lives.

“We are from a higher income background where we used to a modestly privileged lifestyle (we have never wasted money). Now we’ve learned some hard life lessons. We do live in a beautiful village in a beautiful home but we still struggle to cope week on week. Our home is under threat – while we’ve been fortunate to have a buffer against the unexpected, which most people do not, now that buffer is very thin and we are having to carefully consider major changes.

“The lesson learned is that fortune can change on the spin of a coin and social position is often of little protection.  When you are brought low, there’s very little real compassion out there.”

Many of us will have seen Steve’s work without even realising it – he’s the director of the Graham Norton Show aired on Friday nights on BBC1.

In his professional life, Steve works with people who are celebrities and it’s his job and make sure what we see on our screens is the best possible, and most interesting view from all angles.

But does anyone really want to see Steve in the same way? Steve does a job he loves and one he’s passionate about. Yet what aspect of his life interests you the most? Is it his professional role on a national television programme or his personal role at home – as a carer?

The role that consumes most of Steve’s life isn’t one he has chosen. He didn’t apply for the job and get it based upon his skills and life experience. It’s not one he planned for or had a forward-thinking strategy to deal with.

However, it’s the role he’s had to immerse himself in for the last seven years – and there’s no end in sight.

“When I first met Robert he was like Peter Pan. He was an outgoing, good looking, a physically active man and now he’s often unable to get out of bed, has very little energy, and is often too ill to engage with anyone.”

Steve cares on a daily basis for Robert, who faces a struggle with Chronic Fatique Syndrome . Some days, sometimes for weeks, Robert is bed-ridden. On other days he is able to get out, possibly for a few hours but his stamina is poor. Robert is terribly isolated by his condition – and so is Steve.

Steve said: “We had such an active life before this situation took hold. We embraced life to the full. Now we don’t accept invitations anywhere to anything – because we can never be sure that Robert will be well enough. We don’t want to let people down at the last minute. So eventually those invitations stop coming and our world has just got smaller and smaller.

“For his (Robert’s) mother’s 60th birthday, we went back to his family’s home in Yorkshire and he spent the whole weekend in bed. We did try to go out for a little walk, but Robert managed about 100 yards and that was it, he just had to stop. He just couldn’t walk any more.”

(this is part one of Steve and Robert’s story, the second part will be published on Sunday).

 

 

 

Race for Life was an emotional event for anyone affected by cancer – most of us!

At the weekend, my 12 year old daughter Georgia took part in her first ever fundraising event – the Swindon Race for Life to raise money for cancer research.

Starting out...

Starting out…

She’d decided to do this only a short time ago after being inspired by a friend at school who had her hair shaved off to raise awareness when her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was puzzled by how this one event had affected my daughter so much. After all, cancer is a disease we’ve had knowledge of. We have two close friends who are facing it as we speak, three other friends who have had it and are in recovery. We’ve also lost family members to it. However it was this one particular case which caught her imagination.

Very quickly, with the help of lovely Linda, our childminder and a regular Race for Life participant, Georgia planned her strategy and set a target of raising £50. She took it upon herself to gently tell neighbours she was doing the event, telephoning family members to let them know and mentioned it to all of her friends at school. Very quickly she’d raised £45. I mentioned it on social media, not an appeal for money, merely a mention.

It was this which showed me just how deeply as a society we are affected by cancer. The following day, another neighbour who’d seen my social media post, put a donation through the door of £40. The same day, another friend who doesn’t live locally, called and pledged another £25.  Very quickly she’d raised well over £100.

On the day of the race, Georgia left early to warm up and prepare. As we arrived to support her, we walked across Lydiard Park and I wondered how many people would be there. After all, the event has been running in the town for several years. I could not believe my eyes when there was a sea of pink before me – and that didn’t include supporters. Thousands of women, of all shapes, sizes and abilities were gathered to do their bit.

Waving everyone off on the 5km course, wave after wave of women walked, ran or jogged past and it showed how many lives are touched by this disease and the human price of it began to hit you. The emotion was so unexpected. Apart from seeing my own child go off to do this event – I marvelled at the older lady in her mobility scooter, the girls with their hula hoops and the mums with pushchairs on their way.

You're never too old to fight cancer

You’re never too old to fight cancer

It was a day when I was proud of my own child, but also proud of Swindon and of all of those women who had gone out of their way to raise thousands and thousands to help beat this awful disease. We’ve pledged to do the event next year – and this time, I’ll be joining in with my other daughter as we both felt our little effort, matched with the little efforts of thousands of others, all turn into one big effort to defeat this dreadful disease in all its forms.

We Did It!

We Did It!

 

Wiltshire journalist shares her story to inspire women throughout the UK

Have you ever thought – I’d like to write a book? I’d like to tell my story? Can I write a book? Would anyone actually be interested? 

 

As a person who does a lot of writing as part of my business, it may seem strange to tell you that I’ve often asked myself all of the above. When I was a child I always wanted to be an author but, as I got older I wondered if I truly had anything to say of value. I was also pretty sure I couldn’t sustain a story of fiction for long enough.

After several years of running my own business I realise that I do have a lot to say, and some people will want to hear it.

 

In fact, I’ve learned that we ALL have something to say and there will always be those who want to hear it. All of us have value.

 

Once I truly accepted this fact, I found it surprisingly easy to share one of my stories. I’m now in a place where I’m not worried about those who don’t want to listen – those people will always be around – I’m reaching out to those who are life’s do-ers. Those who at least have a go at their ‘thing’ and those who want to live life with few regrets.

This week, my first foray into writing about myself in a book came to fruition. The book – available on Kindle – is Playing & Staying At The Top of Your Game – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00KB2XRYI .

It tells stories from a dozen business women from across the south west who want to encourage and inspire other women to try and to persevere if they want to start or develop their own business. Each story is very different. It’s thanks to my women’s business club – I Am Woman – that I’ve finally taken the plunge. I’m already thinking now about doing an entire book covering many aspects of my professional life.

My story shared in Playing & Staying At The Top of Your Game

My story shared in Playing & Staying At The Top of Your Game

My story about starting my own business and what I learned in those early days is not what you think. I’m not the business person who nurtured an idea, let it grow and then went into it with rose-tinted glasses and making a million in a month. My story is very different.

I had my dream job – and I lost it. I never wanted to be self-employed, I didn’t want to run my own business and I was devastated that life had thrown me such a curve ball. However, I couldn’t change the fact that this had happened. All I could control was what I did next – and that’s the story I tell. Looking back, I realise my more negative start actually stood me in good stead. It didn’t mean I didn’t make any mistakes – I made loads. But my view was always realistic and I seemed to be able to spot when something wasn’t working. To find out more, of course, you’re going to have to read the book.

Is this being arrogant? Some might think so – but why do we women often feel embarrassed about blowing our own trumpet? Is it because men think less of us? Not in my case – I actually think it’s more because some women think less of us. Some cannot stand the fact that others are more ‘out there’ than they are. Women can be women’s own worst enemies. Truth is, I don’t actually care what anyone thinks, those who are interested will read the book, those who are not – won’t.

So I’ll end on these two notes – the woman who writes thousands and thousands of words each year about others has now written some words about herself. She also remembers one very important lesson in life which has sustained her. It was a saying which a teacher, Christopher Drew, put into my autograph book on the day I left primary school back in the 1970s. It’s always reminded me that life is always a journey of discovery and, thankfully, there’s so much more left to learn:

‘HE WHO KNOWS NOT AND KNOWS NOT THAT HE KNOWS NOT. SHUN HIM FOR HE IS A FOOL’.

 

Swindon PR guru takes time off by visiting Exmoor’s hidden zoo.

Have you ever been to Exmoor Zoo? Have you ever heard of Exmoor Zoo?

If you haven’t I’d heartily recommend a visit. Situated in the Devon countryside, down a little country lane, this zoo has more of a family feel than any I’ve visited. We were spending a weekend in the Exe Valley so this location was less than an hour’s drive away.

While nowhere near the scale of Longleat Safari Park or zoos in Bristol or Paignton, it has a charm all of its own and is suitable for families, or those without children.

We visited over the Easter bank holiday and the cost was less than £50 for five of us. Given that’s close to the cost of a cinema visit for us, we hoped it would offer at least a couple of hours of enjoyment and entertainment. We arrived at 11am and left the premises at around 3pm.

When we arrived it was already busy but there is an additional car park as the one near reception is quite small. One tip is to use the toilet on the way in as there are no toilets around the site. This is due to the site not being connected to the mains (it’s all explained on notices around the reception area).

Immediately on collecting tickets as we’d booked online (be aware a family tickets is two adults two children so, in our case, we had to pay an extra amount for our third child), we were given activities for the children to take part in. For me, this is always a good sign. My children love having to find or discover something. So it was a trail where they could collect stamps of animals and another where they could answer tricky questions and then get an Easter egg at the end.

As my children are a bit older, this meant they often ran off for a short time to fill in gaps on their Easter ‘find an animal’ trail.

The zoo has the sense of being a garden, you move quickly from one animal to the next – but there’s also a feeling that the staff know what you are thinking. There are some spaces where you wonder if that space is big enough for the animal within – then you read the blurb and that question is answered.

There is animal activity all around, so bird, bee and bat boxes which children can look at. I personally love the bigger animals but found myself enraptured by the smaller ones too.  I didn’t get the feeling of there being animals which were just ‘making up the numbers’. Even the sparrows had their own special spot.

On site, there are lots of activities where families can get involved in including talks, feeding the animals and holding animals. We’re not good with this in our family, we tend not to like to stick to any timetable or dictate our time around set events, but plenty of families did take part. As you walked around you heard them saying they had to be ‘here’ or ‘there’ at a certain time.

Anticipation was built up by continuous reference to the Exmoor Beast which intrigued the children, who love a sense of the mysterious. So it was quite magical when the zoo’s own beast, languidly stretched, walked down from its perch and marched around its pen.

Another thing which I enjoyed was the good use of the natural landscape and of look-out points around the site. Some of the site is quite steep and rugged, but the animals seemed to like it. Don’t get me wrong, the site is quite accessible, though some paths will be trickier for pushchairs and possibly wheelchairs.

Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire

One of the pumas resting in the sunshine at Exmoor Zoo

 

 

The only odd point was one small enclosed look-out area, overlooking the antelope,  where there was a picnic table in the middle where a family had stopped for lunch. In this small space, this seemed to have two effects, putting off some people from going into have a look across the enclosure as there wasn’t a lot of wriggle room, or interrupt the family who found themselves being watched closely as they tucked into their sandwiches.

Also one of the children’s Easter egg discoveries was in this small enclosure, so it encouraged more and more eager children to mill around the eating family. If I had one tip, it would be to remove that seating as it did seen to give visitors a confused experience. Families do tend to create a private bubble around themselves so it’s easy to feel like you are intruding on them.

However, further around the site the play area for children is very spacious and there’s plenty of picnic room. There’s a small café on site and the quality of the food is excellent. Much better than in other venues. The price tag for five came to £40 but this is fairly normal for us – and in many places would cost far more.

All in all – it was a good visit, value for money, more educational than expected and lots of fun. Even the small egg given as a reward for the children completing the trail was decent and not a disappointing, tiny, hollow piece of low-grade chocolate.

Find out more here –  http://www.exmoorzoo.co.uk

 

 

 

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